The Tomb of Hercules

The most famous ancient sanctuary in Western Europe was in Cadiz,  in old Spain.


Hercules was buried there.

hercules andalucia
Hercules Monument at Cadiz, Spain

There was an oracle. You could ask her questions and get a cryptic reply or an interpretation of a dream.

Collier oracle

The Oracle of Delphi by John Collier

Some of the most famous men of ancient history came as pilgrims to ask her for advice.

Hannibal stopped in to consult the oracle before he set off across the Alps with his army.


Julius Caesar asked the oracle to interpret a dream he’d had that troubled him. (He raped his mother. “Not to worry,” said the oracle in perfect Greek. “That wasn’t your mother but the world. The dream means you will conquer the world.”)

Pliny was there, Polybius, Cassius Dio, many of the Roman emperors, like Trajan. The Emperor Caracalla had the proconsul Aemilianus murdered for asking the Cadiz oracle who the next emperor would be.

For nearly one thousand five hundred years the sanctuary did service. As late as 400 AD it was still open when the poet Aviennus went for a visit.

What was it like?

It looked from the outside like a Greek temple. Ancient coins show it.  The facade was a triangular pediment or gable supported by four columns. You walked up the steep steps, passed through the two central columns and entered through enormous bronze doors. On the doors were reliefs showing the Twelve Labors of Hercules.


Hercules. Gilded bronze, Roman artwork, 2nd century BC  (H. 2.41 m (7 ft. 10 ¾ in.); in the Capitoline Museum, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by User:Tetraktys)

Somewhere near the entrance were two columns—the two “Pillars of Hercules”. The ancient authors don’t agree on what they looked like.

The Pillars of Hercules Monument at Jews’ Gate, Gibraltar (public domain photo by Julo (talk)

The Pillars of Hercules Monument at Jews’ Gate, Gibraltar (public domain photo by Julo (talk)

According to Posidonius they were eight cubits tall (ten feet?) and made of bronze; but Philostatus says they were of gold and silver and only one cubit high. An ancient Phoenician inscription on them had already become illegible by Roman times.

The temple was only partially roofed, so inside it wasn’t dark like Roman temples. The altar at the far end was open to the sky. Every day celibate priests with shaven heads and wearing snow-white tunics sacrificed a lamb or a dove and sprinkled its blood on the altar.

A perpetual fire burned on a tripod but there was no statue of the god. The Carthaginians, who founded the temple towards the end of the second millenium BC, didn’t allow images of their divinities. They had dedicated the shrine  to their god Melkart, whose famous temple they had left behind in Tyre, at the other end of the Mediterranean.  The Greeks came and Melkart became Herakles, a Greek god who was so similar to the Phoenician one that everyone just let one do for the other. To the Romans Herakles was Hercules—they were all names for the same god-hero. He was buried in a crypt under the temple—the mortal half of him.

There were various chapels or side-altars. One was dedicated to Old Age; others to Poverty, to Art, to Death, to the Month, and to the Year. Perhaps they looked like old attics, filled with strange wax exvotos and dried cloth, wooden and metal undefinables (weapons?), covered with the dust of ages.
There were relics, too, such as Teukros’  belt and Pygmalion’s miraculous olive branch (the olives were emeralds).

Its Great Treasure

The Temple received donations, legacies, and votive offerings from all over. Its treasury must have looked like Uncle Scrooge’s money-silo—gold all the way up to the top.


Uncle Scrooge by Walt Disney Productions (a free-use Wikipedia photo)

Uncle Scrooge by Walt Disney Productions (a free-use Wikipedia photo)

Hannibal’s relative Magón was the first to loot it in 206 BC.
Bogud, the king of Mauritania, tried to loot it in 38 BC.
The unscrupulous Roman consul Varron did loot it; but Caesar had the treasure restored.

My source for most of these facts is Historia de la Hispania Romana by A. Tovar and J.M. Blazquez, Alianza Editorial, 1975


This entry was posted in 1, Hercules, history, Romans, sanctuary, Spain and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Tomb of Hercules

  1. Pingback: Ancient temple where oracle predicted Julius Caeser’s world domination discovered beneath waves in Spain’s Cadiz – Spanish Property & News

  2. Pingback: Ancient temple where oracle predicted Julius Caeser’s world domination discovered beneath waves in Spain’s Cadiz - The English Emigre

  3. Pingback: Was Hercules real? - Page 29 - Historum - History Forums

  4. Carrie says:

    At last some raianotlity in our little debate.

  5. Gauth says:

    Hi, Why don’t you put a Google+ bottom on your blog ?

  6. jensi says:

    Herakles was buried in Greece, Hercules in Cadiz. Or there were two shrines that claimed to have the tomb of the god, just as in our time two places (Santo Domingo and Seville) claim to have the bones of Christopher Columbus.

  7. Pingback: محاربين جبابرة وأنصاف آلهة | مدونة سرسرة

  8. Pingback: محاربين جبابرة وأنصاف آلهة | مدوّنة حسام الأخرس

  9. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Adam. The Cadiz temple was consecrated to Hercules. Here is what my source (Historia de la Hispania Romana by Tovar and Blazquez, Alianza Editorial, 1975, Madrid) says: “Cult to the god was first brought to Cadiz by Phoenician colonists at the end of the second millenium before Christ. Hercules or Melkart was originally a Phoenician god… in time he took on a marine character, and even a solar one, as the result of his contact with the Greek god Herakles.” Tovar goes on to say that, according to the second century AD writer, Porphirius (De Abstin., I, 25), the body of Hercules was deposited in the sanctuary of the Herakleion. Hadrian in the second century and Postumus in the third minted coins with the words Hercules Gaditanus, “which shows that the sanctuary was very popular in the Roman Empire.”
    Maybe not everyone believed Hercules was buried there, or they distinguished between the Greek Herakles and the originally Phoenician Hercules (Melkart). Herakles was buried in Greece, Hercules in Cadiz. Or there were two shrines that claimed to have the tomb of the god, just as in our time two places (Santo Domingo and Seville) claim to have the bones of Christopher Columbus.

  10. Adam says:

    The tomb of Hercules is in central Greece, NNE of a vilage Pyra, and NNW of Pavliani, where ruins of his temple can be seen. Location of this temple was well known in antiquity.
    See Livy, movements of roman army after dstruction of Macedonia.


  11. 100swallows says:

    Pavlo, thanks. Why do you say he died at Thermopylae?
    I guess we have to decide if Herakles was a Greek creation or a translation with stories added of the Phoenician Melkart. The Phoenicians put their hero at the other end of the Mediterranean and erected the shrine in Spain. When did he change from Melkart into Herakles? It must have been the Greeks who changed him into their own likeness at Cadiz and “buried” him in the shrine. They believed he was there. The Romans believed.

  12. 100swallows says:

    Erika: I don’t know any. Let’s ask Pavlo Dionysos how he knows Herakles died at Thermopylae.

  13. pavlos says:

    The Greek Hero Died at Thermopylae, Greece.
    (Wich I think is another reason the Spartan King Leonidas chose to fight at Thermopylae during the persian wars)

    Hercules lived During the Mycenean Period (bronze age)
    Spain would be considerd barbarian territory.
    I dont beleive for a second Hercules would be buried there.
    If the man Existed, He’d be buried In Greece, Were he was worshiped as a god.


  14. erikatakacs says:

    Sources regarding Herakles being real? Or being buried in Cadiz?

  15. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, expat21. I’m glad you found the post and its photos so interesting. A real Hercules? Remember how he evolved. He’d have been not Hercules, nor even Herakles, maybe not even Melkart. And his “labors” sound like the elaboration of generations of poets and myth-mongers. Why do you have a special interest in the god? I’d like to see that grotto in Tangier.

  16. expat21 says:

    I think this is one of the most interesting posts I’ve ever read on your blog (although I find them all interesting).Perhaps it’s because I have a special interest in Hercules–this makes it seem as if there was a real person by the name of Hercules, do you think that is possible?

    I loved all the photos, but I know it must have taken you quite some time to find them!

    Across in Morocco, in Tangier, one can visit the “Grotto of Hercules,” a cave into which the ocean flows.

    Expat 21

  17. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Christopher. I needed a break. I’ll post again soon.

  18. christopher says:

    Where’d you go, sir? On vacation? Missing your posts.

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